CBSO/Oramo, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

The hall's horns whoop up a storm
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The Independent Culture

Imagin'd Corners is the first commission from Julian Anderson as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra's composer-in-association. A concertante piece for large orchestra with five obbligato horns, it utilises the refined acoustics of the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, in its spatial effects. The inspiration was a CBSO performance in the hall of Richard Strauss's Alpine Symphony – the offstage horns, interacting with the on-stage brass, and the score's literal representation of natural sounds sowed the seeds for Anderson's own "outdoor" work.

Two types of tuning are used for the horns: the equal temperament of the modern valve horn and the natural tuning of the hunting horn. The dramatic range of the instrument is explored in Anderson's writing, from blaring cors de chasse to lyrical, Romantic melodic lines and baying alpenhorns.

The work begins with two pairs of horns offstage left and right; a fifth horn player sits at the back, between wind and brass. This soloist remains among the orchestra throughout the work, entering into dialogue with the other horns and blending in with the rest of the on-stage players.

During a slowly accelerating orchestral interlude, in which the woodwind chatter and chirp in a welter of birdcalls la Messiaen, the four horns come on stage and take up positions in front of the conductor. They now assume "hunting horn" mode, galloping through a contemporary take on a Mozartian rondo. From this rollicking, bucolic scherzando unfolds a long, graceful melodic line.

An increase in close polyphony signals the final section, with horn players at opposite sides, or "imagin'd corners", of the stage, whooping and bellowing to each other in an extreme version of the echoing alpenhorns from the scherzo of Mahler's Fifth. A tumultuous climax ensues, with trumpets, cymbals and cowbells. The work finishes with a flourish and a last whoop into the void.

Imagin'd Corners, which takes its title from a poem by John Donne, is an exciting, and lively work, cramming more interest into its 12 minutes than many more extended pieces. Echoes of other key horn repertoire – Britten's Serenade, Tippett's Sonata and Schumann's Konzertstück – register in the mind, but the language is firmly Anderson's own, not least in the ecstatic but controlled activity of the finale.

Sakari Oramo and the CBSO seemed thrilled to be stretched by a composer who writes music that stimulates and challenges his players. The soloists deserved singling out for applause, but the exciting and creative writing for the other orchestral sections – exotic percussion, tribal trumpets, piercing upper woodwind and the carefully worked out sonorities of divided strings – bodes well for future commissions.

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